White House lawyer’s presence at FBI meetings sets off alarm bells for Dems
A White House lawyer’s appearance at two briefings Thursday on the FBI’s tactics in the Russia investigation was immediately criticized by Democrats, who said it raised serious questions about the administration’s motives for the meetings.
They said Emmet Flood’s attendance at the beginning of the two meetings was a disturbing breach of the traditional firewall between the Justice Department and the White House and possible evidence that the meetings were a pretense to funnel information from the investigation to the president’s legal team.
“Never seen a Gang of Eight meeting that included any presence from the White House staff,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel, said after the second meeting. “Unusual times.”
Flood’s presence “only underscores [that] the President’s legal team expects to use information gleaned improperly from the Justice Department or the President’s allies in Congress to their legal advantage,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.
According to the White House, Flood and Chief of Staff John Kelly both left before the substance of the briefings — an account corroborated by Democrats who were in the room who nonetheless saw it as inappropriate.
The two meetings were set up by Kelly amidst Republican demands for information on the FBI’s use of a confidential informant in the early months of the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.
President Trump — backed by House conservatives — has alleged that the FBI “planted a spy” in his 2016 campaign, though there is no evidence that law enforcement had a “mole” embedded within the Trump campaign or organization.
The White House in a statement said that both men were there to “facilitate” the meetings, which were the result of fierce negotiations up until the last minute.
They gave “brief remarks before the meetings started to relay the President’s desire for as much openness as possible under the law,” the White House statement said.
“They also conveyed the President’s understanding of the need to protect human intelligence services and the importance of communication between the branches of government.”
Although Flood is not a member of the president’s personal legal team — he is a White House employee, unlike Rudy Giuliani — officials say his job is defending the president in the Russia probe.
“Emmet Flood will be joining the White House Staff to represent the president and the administration against the Russia witch hunt,” Sanders said when he was hired in May.
The details of each of the two back-to-back briefings were in flux until virtually hours before the first meeting was scheduled to take place, hinting at the roiling partisan uproar surrounding the controversy the president has talked up on Twitter throughout the week.
White House officials initially invited only GOP lawmakers to a single briefing on Thursday, sparking allegations from Democrats that the meeting was designed to help Trump “fight back” against the Russia investigation.
Later, under pressure from Democrats, they added a second briefing with the top leaders from both parties in the House and Senate and the bipartisan leaders of the two Intelligence Committees — the so-called Gang of Eight.
Then, hours before the first meeting with GOP Reps. Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Trey Gowdy (S.C.) on Thursday, it was revealed that Schiff would be attending both meetings—a victory for Democrats after a tumultuous two days.
Lawmakers and officials emerged tight-lipped about the substance of the two briefings.
Schiff told reporters after the meeting that “nothing we heard today has changed our view that there is no evidence to support any allegation that the FBI or any intelligence agency placed a spy in the Trump campaign or otherwise failed to follow appropriate procedures and protocols.”
It was not immediately clear whether officials provided the same briefing to the Gang of Eight as they gave to Nunes and Schiff earlier in the afternoon.
It was also not clear at the close of the meetings whether Justice Department officials provided access to any of the documents that Nunes has subpoenaed related to the confidential informant.
It was that subpoena that began the drama and culminated in the two briefings.
The Justice Department has pushed back against the order, arguing that giving Nunes the information he seeks would endanger national security and expose the source and his contacts.
And former law enforcement and intelligence officials and other experts say there is nothing about the use of a confidential informant in a validly-predicated investigation — even one into a presidential campaign — that violates FBI guidelines.
“First, FBI has rules for ‘sensitive’ investigations of a U.S. ‘political candidate (involving corruption or a threat to the national security)’ or ‘political organization or individual prominent in such an organization,’ among others, & no claim those breached here,” tweeted David Kris, former assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
“Second, the main alternative to investigating is NOT investigating. Where there are indications of unlawful foreign influence in a presidential campaign, should the FBI ignore it? The FBI has to follow the facts where they lead.”
Trump has backed Nunes over the Justice Department, on Sunday demanding that the Justice Department investigate the allegations that there was a “spy” in his campaign. He ultimately backed away from that demand, instead calling for the original briefing and allowing the Justice Department to refer the matter to the inspector general — but the incident raised fears among some critics that he would spark a constitutional crisis by seeking to intervene directly in an active investigation.
It’s unclear whether the Thursday briefings will calm the turmoil.
House conservatives who have been clamoring for access to information on the informant had already signaled that they did not expect to be satisfied. A briefing is not sufficient, those lawmakers say—they want access to the documents themselves.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a close Trump ally in Congress, told The Hill on Tuesday that he was “less than 10 percent confident” that the Justice Department would turn over the documents Nunes has tried to compel.
And Trump himself continued to tweet about the matter throughout Thursday morning.
“Starting to look like one of the biggest political scandals in U.S. history. SPYGATE – a terrible thing!” he tweeted.
Jordain Carney contributed.